The Other Haim Song-sisters Are Yemenite – and Just as Viral

A trio of sisters transforms almost-extinct, traditional Yemeni songs into a celebration of rhythm and dance. Their clip went viral on the Web, and now they've released the first single from their debut album.

Tal Givony

Three women in the desert, their hair black as coal. They chop wood, wash dishes, and bathe the feet of the threatening boss-man, who lashes the ground with his whip. They shave the bristles of his beard, and gaze at the barrenness around them. And they sing, in a repetitive rhythm resonant with the desperation of domestic drudgery.

The trio then dons glistening pink hijabs and hits the road, on the way to the big city. They speed across the desert wasteland in a white Jeep, fueled by a seemingly new-found vigor. They enter a fantastical pink Arabian-style palace, where they put on sneakers and break into a lively hip-hop dance with three young men.

This eruption of girl power takes place in a video clip, “Habib Galbi” (“Love of My Heart”), the first single by A-Wa, an all-woman threesome that is reclaiming ancient, almost extinct Yemeni songs for women and setting them to contemporary rhythms.

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The clip has had more than 400,000 views on Facebook and YouTube, tens of thousands of them from people in the Muslim world – Yemen but also in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Private individuals, radio stations and even the “official” page of the Mipsterz – Muslim hipsters – have shared the clip, at least some of them in the belief that A-Wa is a Yemen-based group.

In fact, the desert expanse in the clip is the landscape of the Arava, in southern Israel, more specifically of the remote community of Shaharut, and the three women bound for freedom are sisters who grew up there before heading for the big city (Ramat Gan): Tair, 31, Liron, 29, and Tagel, 25, from the Haim family.

Until now, they have performed at local festivals, in clubs and in homemade clips they uploaded to the Web, but this summer they will release their debut album, sung completely in Yemeni Arabic. The first single was to be celebrated at a performance at Tel Aviv’s Barby club last night, bolstered by singers and musicians Shai Tzabari and Tomer Yosef. The latter is also the group’s musical director; he produced the “Habib Galbi” clip based on the sisters’ precise guidelines and at locations of their choosing.

The Haim sisters are not the first to marry traditional Yemeni music to electronic pop. Ofra Haza, who died in 2000, burst onto the international music scene with her album “Yemenite Songs.” But it’s impossible to ignore the distinctive groove of A-Wa and its high-potential, feminine triple threat. They’re set to be the next big thing.

The sisters’ distinctive identity evolved amid the isolation of the desert. Their parents, Shmulik and Naama Haim – an architect and holistic therapist, respectively – viewed themselves as pioneers in settling the vast, empty and arid Arava. They built their home at this tiny and isolated community established 30 years ago in the desert, and raised six children there, five daughters and a son. Naama managed a guesthouse in the yard, baked bread and milked goats while the children frolicked. (In addition to the members of the trio there are two younger sisters, Shir and Tzlil, and their brother, Evyatar, a soundman who was involved in recording the album.)

‘Little House on the Prairie’

“We didn’t leave the village much,” Liron says. “There was this ‘Little House on the Prairie’ atmosphere – until MTV arrived. There’s no supermarket, no grocery store, no swimming pool in Shaharut. At night we would climb onto Dad’s van, spread out a blanket and look up at the stars.”

“Our house in Shaharut is small, modest and pleasant, with vintage items and nonstop music in the background,” says Tair, a music and voice-development teacher, who leads workshops in Yemeni music in Israel and abroad.

“When we were growing up, we sang all the time, organized gigs in the yard, and wrote children’s plays and musicals for the area’s preschoolers during summer vacation. When we were little, we would climb a hill next to the house and pretend we were performing in a huge stadium abroad. When everything is open and there are no borders – you dream big and everything seems possible.”

That’s just the opposite of the world of women living in Yemen, whose songs the sisters are now rescuing from oblivion. “The [Jewish] women in Yemen were closer to the local population [than the men were] and absorbed the street language and the Arab mentality,” Liron notes. “They were not allowed into the synagogue when the men were praying, and they couldn’t read or write. They expressed their everyday distress through song; distress passed from mother to daughter, across the generations.”

Tair: “The Yemini women composed songs and folktales filled with protest and love, and containing mystical elements. We found it intriguing to create music that is not just nice, but that is also filled with powerful feelings and mystery, that is larger than life.”

Though the sisters have dedicated themselves to recovering and reviving the music of Yemeni women, they themselves are actually half-Yemeni. Their father’s father immigrated from Sana’a, the capital, and their maternal grandmother is from northern Yemen. All the family spoke Hebrew between them.

The sisters, though, were always drawn to their Yemeni roots and were curious about their grandmother’s experience, and the origins of the mysterious and sometimes frightening fables she told them when they were children. They became acquainted with Jewish-Yemeni music, including the great singers and musicians – Aharon Amram, Zion Golan, Bracha Cohen, Shoshana Damari, and of course Ofra Haza – in the homes of their grandparents. Beyond the musical context, they were enthralled by the Yemini diction of their grandfather, which they term “perfect.”

Their inquisitiveness was especially piqued by a “musical roots” project each of them took part in during the sixth grade. Their classmates came up with songs from home, while the sisters sang songs their grandparents had taught them, in Yemini Arabic, to which they danced, wearing traditional garb. And in contrast to other girls, who wanted to learn guitar or flute, the Haim girls insisted that their parents get them a Yemeni tin drum.

“Following the destruction of the Temple, a tradition of mourning developed [among the Jews] in Yemen,” Tair explains. “They played only percussion instruments, such as silver plates and tin cans. Ever since we were little girls we loved the wild, tribal sound of the tin. For my [high school] matriculation exam in music, I went onstage with a silver-plated tin drum. It reflected the light and everyone was bedazzled.”

They started performing publicly three years ago, but without accompanying musical backup. Not long afterward, they began to play onstage with Balkan Beat Box, Tomer Yosef’s band, and through them met the singer and actress Esther Rada and the producer Itay Mautner. Since then they have appeared at the Jewish festival in Krakow, in two festivals in France and at a club in Belgium, along with various venues in Israel. But there’s still a feeling that their real breakthrough is just around the corner.

Liron: “When we were little, we dreamed, played and imagined things. Now we talk about how cool it would be to perform in a specific place, and then make it happen. In the process of moving to Ramat Gan, we recorded a few songs in Hebrew and English with Yemeni influences. But we shelved them and looked around for someone to work with. We had a good feeling about Tomer. It took five seconds of effort on Facebook, and in an instant he sent back a lovely reply. There was an immediate rapport between us.”

Learning lyrics by heart

The sisters are now sharing an apartment and the launch of a musical career in Tel Aviv. In the meantime, they’ve done a few other things. Liron is an architect and interior designer, Tagel is a visual communications student at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, in Ramat Gan – she’s in charge of the group’s graphics – and Tair studied music for a degree at Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv. It was at Levinsky that she first encountered the secular songs (as opposed to sacred music) of the Yemeni women, in a course given by the dancer and choreographer Leah Avraham. “She broadened the feminine viewpoint, and that had a great influence on me,” Tair explains.

The sisters met Yemeni Jewish women who still sing the traditional songs. Later, they also made contact with people who are actively preserving the Yemeni Jewish musical heritage. One of them is Itamar Pinhas, from Rosh Ha’ayin, for whom this is a lifework: For the past three years, in conjunction with the National Library in Jerusalem, Pinhas has been collecting recordings from Israel’s early period and converting the songs to a digital format.

According to Pinhas, “The women’s world in the Jewish community of Yemen was more developed than that of the men. The women sang about all their activities – every activity had its song. They couldn’t read or write, so they learned the words by heart and sometimes intertwined songs, because they couldn’t remember so many.

“They sang about marriage at an early age to older men, about having missed the experience of youth, about the problems of being the husband’s second wife, about the mockery they suffered at the hands of the new family. All the pain of their life is expressed in these songs, and that is their beauty.”

These days, he notes, people don’t understand the language, meaning that they can’t enjoy the content, so he is uploading them, with translations (in Hebrew), to YouTube. To date he has uploaded more 650 Yemeni songs, which have had almost a million and a quarter views; the channel has 1,300 subscribers. Among the viewers were the three sisters, who spotted verses in the songs that they knew but with a different melody, or familiar songs with verses unknown to them. Pinhas’ uploads also acquainted them with singers they weren’t aware of.

“Women’s secular singing was transmitted from one person to another,” Pinhas relates. “The songs were not recorded until the Yemini Jews immigrated to Israel, and most of the singers are men, such as Shlomo Moga’a, who accompanied himself on the oud. Many of the songs he performs are women’s songs, and it’s rather amusing to hear them from a man.”

One day, the sisters went to see Pinhas. They sang for him, so he could hear their diction and their music. They impressed him powerfully. “Their rendition of ‘Habib Galbi’ is marvelous, they are simply wonderful,” Pinhas says. “It’s terrific that young girls like them understand this music and are able to adapt it to our time.”

Do you think they are continuing the path of Ofra Haza?

Pinhas: “I would say so. Ofra Haza gave Yemeni music international status. I hope the girls will achieve her heights. They are taking items from the Yemeni shelf of music, removing the mothballs and retouching them to make them more beautiful and suit the spirit of the time.”

Spirit of the time

The album that’s on the way will definitely be in the spirit of the time. “I’ve been involved in the world music scene for 10 years, and something like them has simply been lacking. I’ve never seen anything like it,” their producer, Tomer Yosef, tells me via Skype from Australia, where he’s on tour with Balkan Beat Box. “We started with the rhythm and then we put together the music. In the final stage, we recorded only singing, and I would happily put out an a capella album by the trio, because they sound so fully formed.”

“In the course of working on the music, we realized that we want to reach the root of the matter, the Yemeni essence,” Tair says. “The fact that Tomer is Yemeni himself is a big plus – he understands why we love the music. He became our big brother, and we make decisions together with him. He also put us in touch with the band that performs with us: Amir Bresler on drums, Hod Moshonov on keytar [portable keyboard], Yoeg Glusman on bass guitar and Amir Zeevi on electric guitar. We ourselves play metalofon – which resembles a xylophone – maracas and tin drum.”

How do you go about arranging ancient Yemeni songs?

Tair: “It’s based on listening. We play one another a Yemeni song with multiple verses, written in a folk structure, sometimes nine consecutive verses, very monotonic. Then I try to come up with harmony for the song on the keyboard. We chose a few verses from performances recorded by Moga’a and arranged them with modern elements and vocal harmonies they usually don’t have.

“We decided where to make cuts and we added choruses. Tomer Yosef assembled it all into something very cool, electronic, with a beat. There’s something magical about this music, even if you don’t understand the words; it has tremendous soul and groove. And because we make it ours, it becomes relevant for young people, too. It touches everyone.”

Did you ever feel you had to make more of an effort for the opportunity to be heard – as women, as Mizrahim from a small, remote community?

Tair: “We are only half-Yemini; our mother is of mixed descent – Ukrainian and Moroccan. We turned our point of departure to our benefit. The place we come from, the uniqueness of that place, the fact that we are of mixed origin, second generation of pioneer sabras – this means that we come from a point of strength, and we are harnessing it all for our benefit. Even if we are from a remote place, we always dreamed big and we knew we would make it.

“The element of being Mizrahi [referring to Jews from Islamic lands] is at the heart of our work, and we sanctify it. The spotlight is turned primarily on that element, not only on the music itself but also, as in the clip, on the visual elements, on the garb we wear. And just as we don’t try to blur anything in our art, in daily life too we harness it for our benefit. We feel just great with ourselves and we never felt discrimination.

“We are part of the new generation that has a new message and a place for everyone – a path of music and culture that makes it possible to connect with everyone and do good. We’re delighted that girls come up to us after a show and say they’re thrilled to see three women up-front. That is feminine empowerment in what is very much a man’s world.”

What is the origin of the name “A-Wa”?

Liron: “It’s a cry of encouragement. We liked the fact that it’s easy to pronounce in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and also that it has three letters, one for each of us. Tagel suggested the name and straight off we said no, but then we saw it’s not a bad name at all.”

Is A-Wa headed for success in Israel or abroad?

“Both,” they agree among themselves, and Tagel elaborates: “It’s important for us to succeed in Israel. So far the audiences have been warm and very receptive and open, whether they’re hipsters or children, older Yemenis or people who have no connection to the community and say, ‘I’m Ashkenazi and I’m crazy over you.’ Our biggest show so far was in Krakow, with Shai Tzabari, in front of 20,000 people, at the Jewish Culture Festival. We enjoyed that very much, but what’s more important is that we got a pat on the back from the Yemeni community.

“Grandma had tears in her eyes when she listened to our recordings. And then Tomer took the recordings to his ‘tribe’ in Kfar Sava and played them for all the elderly Yemeni women. They loved it. They said we sounded like old women in Yemen. That was a true compliment.”

Do you keep track of what is going on in Yemen these days?

Tair: “Unfortunately, Yemen has become really hardcore – it’s not a place we will be able to perform in. There is barely a Jewish community left there. But people in Yemen, students, liberals or Yemenis in exile reach us through the Web and tell us that our music is amazing.”